Facing the global coronavirus pandemic, Palestine has “the special and unique challenges of being under colonialism and a touristic country,” a Palestinian Catholic from the Bethlehem area told CNA.
Rula Shomali, communications officer at the Latin Catholic Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told CNA that Palestinians, and especially Palestinians Christians, face unusual challenges while fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
“With a state of low income and poor resources, and a country that has fought colonialism for years, it is difficult to fight two colonizations at once; the Israeli occupation and COVID-19,” she said.
In recent weeks, coronavirus infections skyrocketed in the West Bank. As of July 9, there were 4,673 infected people and 22 deaths from COVID 19 in the West Bank. At the end of May, there had been only 400 infections and two fatalities. The renewed spread of the infection is jeopardizing the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to counter the epidemic.
Shomali said that “we are already living in a large open prison, having the checkpoints and the wall surrounding our area. Having to deal with its consequences everyday leaves us in the same situation that the lockdown and quarantine measures have imposed.”
She added that “as a Palestinian working in Jerusalem, I have to cross the checkpoint every day to pass from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. To be able to do so, I should have a specific and valid permit.”
“During the outbreak” – Shomali recounted – “all the permits stopped, and the checkpoint was closed. My colleagues and I weren’t able to reach our offices, and it took some time for the Patriarchate to arrange our coming to work.”
Working from home was also hard, because “our internet connection is very slow, and our laptops do not have access to everything we need. I had a three months old baby girl! (now she is six months!) which makes working from home harder than I thought. My other colleges have sisters and brothers who had exams and online classes with only one laptop at home, which made the progress of work slower.”
Three months of lockdown seemed at first to defeat the spread of the infection. But numbers in recent weeks show that the pandemic is still spreading in Palestine.
“One of Palestine’s current risk factors is the intense social mixing, us living in overcrowding urban slums and camps, inadequate sanitation, and our specific cultural and faith practices that let people interact frequently,” explained Shomali.
She stressed that “family gatherings at wedding and funerals are the major reason that prevented the Palestinian government from protecting its people from the second wave of COVID-19.”
In addition to that, “people find it difficult to change their social behaviors suddenly. Some think of it as inappropriate to meet someone and not shake hands, or congratulate someone and not to kiss, or to leave someone and not to hug. These are the things we were raised doing: social gatherings and crowding!”
The new outbreak of pandemic took place in an area in downtown Hebron, called H2, which is administered by the Israeli government. Shomali said that “the Palestinian government has no authority there, so many people held weddings and funerals uncontrollably.”
Shomali noted that Palestinian authority has taken preventive measures to counter the infection, “despite the Palestinian low-income economics, and the lack of major health facilities and tools.”
She said that “since March 2020, the Palestinian Ministry of Health and the government imposed a closure on the Bethlehem area and asked people to go under lockdown after returning a Greek group who was on tour in Bethlehem, that was found to be infected with COVID-19.”
The proclaimed state of emergency measures resulted in the closure of many organizations and institutions, and so many employees and workers lost their jobs. The government, Shomali, said, “implemented various protective measures” and at the same time “raised awareness through TV channels and social media.”
Shomali said that life in Palestine is “definitely harder. I live 10 minutes away from my parents, and I can’t visit them because of the restrictions and because of my fear of infecting them. Also, since March, I couldn’t reach my office. The business stopped in the Bethlehem area. We are facing a critical financial situation, as some of us stopped receiving salaries, and others received small percentages of it. We pay rent, have loans, bills, and other fees, besides our daily expenses of food, and other necessary needs for my toddler.”
Before the COVID pandemic, life in Palestine was “simple,” while “during the outbreak of COVID-19, we stuck at home, we worked and studied online.”
“Many families had a hard time doing so due to the lack of laptops or smartphones in the house and poor internet connection. Many lost their jobs and couldn’t afford to pay the bills, rent, and so. Our allowance for food and cleaning products increased, as we are home all the time, and it was during winter, so we needed more food! Besides all that, our anxiety increased, and we suffered sleep deprivation, it was hard to get a new routine during the pandemic.”
Shomali said that “many people couldn’t afford to buy their basic needs, as their business stopped, they lost their jobs – as Bethlehem is considered to be a tourist town and its income mainly depends on tourism.”
The coronavirus outbreak also affected the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. “As well as struggling with the effects of decades of military and economic occupation, the pandemic left us with severe adverse impacts on our income, that many couldn’t pay school fees, which is one source the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem depends on for the salaries of its teachers and employees,” Shomali said.
Shomali also noted that “a big part of our challenge as Palestinians living in a small community is not only the social visiting and the risk of infecting each other but also misinformation and rumors spreading on social media which have generated panic and mistrust among people, who their attention was diverted from the outbreak response and prevention and the great work done by the health-care workers, to passing down rumors and false information.”